Woolly Mammoth Poop Analysis May Solve Extinction Mystery; Beasts May Have Relied Too Much On Flowers In Their Diets

By Ben Wolford on February 7, 2014 1:42 PM EST

Woolly Mammoth
Scientists still don't know what killed off the woolly mammoth. But the latest theory suggests it had to do with their diet of little yellow flowers. (Photo: Shutterstock)

Even though they went extinct about 10,000 years ago, the woolly mammoth has long been a symbol of might and strength, even national pride here in the U.S. But a new analysis of preserved woolly mammoth poop suggests their diet of little plants, like miniature sunflowers, may have been the downfall of an entire species.

The study, published Wednesday in Nature, sought to compare the diets of woolly mammoths, woolly rhinoceroses, bison, and horses — the so-called megafauna of the arctic region — with the plant life that existed there over the course of 50,000 years. They found that, contrary to popular assumption, those animals probably ate more than just grasses. As one of the authors, Eske Willerslev, of the University of Copenhagen, told NPR, they probably ate little flowers. "To our surprise it turned out that the dominant source food that these animals were eating were in fact the flowering plants and not so much the grasses that everyone thought was so important," he said.

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The flowers were a type of forb, the same kind of flowering plant as sunflowers and marijuana. Prior to about 10,000 years ago, the arctic plains — areas around Canada, Alaska, and Siberia — were strewn with these little flowers. Willerslev discovered this by analyzing frozen soil that contained ancient DNA of dead plants. He compared it to mammoth droppings and found the same DNA.

What caused the woolly mammoth to go extinct has always been a mystery. But around 10,000 years ago, just as humans were wrapping up their million-year tradition of hunting and gathering for subsistence, woolly mammoth numbers began to shrink. Many theories use this and other evidence that men frequently hunted woolly mammoths (including art depicting hunts) to suggest overhunting was the cause of their demise. Woolly mammoths eventually completely disappeared from mainland habitats and lived only on islands, including one herd that persisted in present-day Alaska until about 2,000 BCE.

This study points out that the forbs eaten by woolly mammoths were rich in protein. When the plants disappeared after 8,000 BCE, perhaps the woolly mammoths did, too. The case is not rested, though. NPR spoke with a paleontologist from the University of Michigan who observed that mammoth droppings make great fertilizer for forbs. Perhaps the death of the mammoths precipitated the death of the forbs, and humans were the original killers after all.

Above photo courtesy of Shutterstock

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